Bill Ford Jr.: Michigan needs to ‘lean into’ churning out more software developers

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DETROIT — Michigan “desperately” needs more software developers to compete in a fast-changing auto industry racing to develop self-driving vehicles and new mobility innovations, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said.

“We need to lean into the software development as a state if we’re going to be the leader,” Ford said in an interview Friday with Crain’s Detroit Business, a sister publication of Automotive News.

Ford said a greater focus on teaching software development and computer coding is needed in the state’s public universities. The comments came the same day tech giant Google announced it will base a computer coding training program for high school students out of Ford’s Michigan Central Innovation District in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

“That’s why this Google announcement is also so cool because it kind of puts an exclamation point on that,” Ford said.

Responding to a Crain’s Forum report on Michigan’s knowledge economy, Ford said the state needs both blue-collar hourly jobs in production and knowledge-based salaried jobs.

“But we desperately need the white-collar software development,” Ford said.

Google has become one of the “founding members” of Ford’s $950 million investment in building out a mobility-focused tech hub in Corktown, anchored by the Ford-owned Michigan Central Station. A $740 million renovation of the old train station is expected to be complete by the end of the second quarter in 2023.

In addition to teaching coding classes, Google will provide its cloud-based technological services at Michigan Central, the new name for Ford’s mobility innovation campus centered on the 109-year-old train depot.

Google and Ford company officials said Friday the computer coding courses could be one way to create a better pipeline of software development talent for the automaker or its partner companies at Michigan Central.

“We then can hire those kids with Google training,” Bill Ford Jr said. “That’s a win for everybody — it’s a win for Ford, it’s a win for the city of Detroit, it’s a win for the families of those kids. To me, that’s hugely exciting.”

Since Ford bought Detroit’s long-abandoned train station in 2018, the company’s executive chairman and great-grandson of Henry Ford has been focused on marketing it as a way to compete for talent with Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston and other tech hubs across the country.

Bill Ford Jr. said the company remains committed to basing 2,500 of its employees at the train station building or adjacent Book Depository building, which is slated to open this summer.

Google is the first company to publicly say it will have some presence — physical and virtual — at Michigan Central.

The company chairman said there are more mobility-focused tech companies interested in having a presence in Corktown.

“We’re really try to lean into companies — both startups and existing companies — that will be additive to what we’re doing here,” Ford said.

Non-automotive tech firms would be welcomed to lease space in the train station building, he said.

“But I think though that the ones that really are leaning into the future of transportation are going to be the ones that desperately need to be part of this ecosystem,” Ford told Crain’s.

Ford Motor Co. management has not yet determined which teams will be stationed in Corktown and which will remain based in Dearborn, Ford said.

A decision on what Ford employees will occupy the Book Depository building when it opens this summer may be made in the coming months, Ford said.

“We haven’t really sorted that out either,” Ford said. “We’re in the process of doing that now.”

Almost two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Ford’s white-collar workforce largely continues to work from home, with the exception of engineers who have to use to CAD machines and other tools for their daily work in Ford’s research and development labs in Dearborn.

Bill Ford Jr. said Friday he anticipates the company’s white-collar workforce will have hybrid work schedules in the near future, coming into the office when it’s necessary for collaboration and working remotely the rest of the time.

At Michigan Central, Ford’s top boss expects collaboration to be an almost daily work requirement.

“I would think if you’re part of this, you’re going to need to be down here because you need to collaborate … if you’re an engineer, you need to test out your hardware and your software,” Ford told Crain’s. “You need to do that with other people, you need to do it a real-life situation. That’s going to require you to be here more than not.”

Ford is already planning to have an office in the train station, which opened to passenger trains in 1913 when the now 119-year-old Ford Motor Co. was just celebrating its 10th anniversary in business.

“I’m going to be hanging out here as much as I can,” Ford told Crain’s.

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